1999 Toyota Camry Check Engine Light Problems
November 5, 2009 5:29 PM   Subscribe

Calling those w/ more knowledge of cars than I... 1999 Toyota Camry with a well-documented Check Engine light problem. How can I convince people/mechanics that the problem is a low-percentage systemic design flaw and not something that needs replacing if there's never been a recall issued?

Okay. Qualifiers:

-I have a moderate knowledge of cars, but nothing special. I have enough of a working knowledge to know when a mechanic is telling me I need something I don't really need, but I wouldn't be confident doing labor myself.
-I certainly know the behavior/history of my own cars.
-I don't have a lot of money.
-I'm a point A point B kind of guy.
-My family has bought nothing but Camrys for over 20 years. They have been wonderful.

The only minor problem came when my mother bought new 1999 toyota camry and in the first year the check engine light came on. Naturally, she took it for service and it was an "EGR Flow Insufficiency" "EVAP vent control malfunction" and EVAP Ctrl Incorrect purge flow." Basically these are all things that indicate problems with a variety of parts that deal with emission control. She got many of the parts replaced and soon after the check engine light came on for the SAME exact problems. So my ma and her mechanic finally realized after much research, that the car has a significant history of being overly-sensitive to these specific emissions problems. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the parts of the system it is actually the system and design of the car itself. So he refunded her a lot of money and any time her check engine light came on he would check it out to be sure it was just those problems and turn it off, and pass her for any inspections, etc. Yeah, this mechanic was a genuine class act.

So two years ago I bought this car from her and now operate it in California. It's in great condition for a ten year old car, I do all regular maintenance. And it passed it's first smog test 2 years ago and all that (the check engine light was off at the time, like I said, it's temperamental).

So a few months into owning, I was getting maintenance done at a pep boys (they charge the lowest prices) and was convinced that this problem didn't exist and I was crazy and I need 900 dollars worth of repairs done to this system. I finally caved and low and behold the NEXT DAY the check engine light came on for the same set of problems. Needless to say I started a big thing with Pepboys to try and get some for of restitution which is neither here nor there (it didn't work. mechanic companies can't be held responsible for convincing you to get service you don't need).

So basically i went on with my life and got maintenance on my car and thankfully ignored nonsense EGR/EVAP issues and life has been fine.

Until I needed a recent smog test pass for my California registration renewal. I can't get passed because of my check engine light is on and registering the same nonsense 3 codes. The car checks out great in all other areas.

I told my story to the Smog check guy, and he believed me and recommended me to a refugee station, where I could plead my case. I prepped for a week (printed out 100s of people with similar complaints) and had the entire history of my car documented and at hand. I went in this morning to talk to the guy about my problem, and he listened, realized I knew what I was talking about, and felt very sorry for me. Because it turns out, he can't do ANYTHING unless there's been a recall. He wasn't even sure why I got recommended to him. I responded that I thought it was a place for exactly this kind of gray area, but he said "yeah, but you need a recall."

Now I have friends who have worked for car companies. I know what it takes to get a car recalled. (And for those who've seen fight club, it's not far off). Basically there is no way that a car gets recalled for a maintenance problem that doesn't effect vehicle performance and accidents/people's health. No way a car gets a recall for my problem. No way.

So basically I was telling him this and that there is literally nothing I can for for my car, which again, has nothing actually wrong with it, but spend 900 dollars for repairs, and hope I can get a smog test before the light comes back on (which could happen instantly). And more over this is something I will have to deal with again at the very next smog inspection down the road.

But of course all the guy said was "my hands are tied."

And that's all that's happened. I've called every dealership (they all won't commit to any answers), toyota corporate office (they stonewall me), and mechanic I can think of and asked for solutions but all I get is "My hands are tied", illegal suggestions, or offers of things to do that charge me exorbitant amounts of money.

Side note: Tampering with a check engine light can get you jail time in California. But still... it's a last resort option and one I don't want to get to.

So tomorrow morning I'm going to walk into a Toyota dealership and try and I have to convince them I don't need any work done. And to just pass me for a smog test. But this likely will not happen. I can't just drop 450-900 dollars on nonsense, but I just know that's what I'm going to end up doing. I can apply for a test program in California that will pay up to 500 dollars of it, but that will take months. Months I don't have.

Is there anyone here who can help? I am completely at a loss of where to go from here. There has to be someone somewhere out there who can just look at this situation and say "your car is okay to drive and in fact safer to drive in California than every SUV in the road."

There's obviously some precedence for legal action, but honestly that is expensive and drawn out, and I NEED TO GET MY CAR ON THE ROAD. Any ideas?
posted by Lacking Subtlety to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You don't say which engine your have (4 or 6 cylinder). One of classic problems with the Camry EGR system is that the injection ports on the intake manifold become clogged with carbon and that restricts the flow of exhaust gas. The sensors detect the restricted flow and turn on the check engine light. Many mechanics will replace lots of EGR parts including the EGR valve and various switching valves but they may not clean out the tiny injection ports because it require dismantling a lot of equipment.

If you don't want to go to the expense of more repairs here is what you can do. You can clear the codes yourself. All you have to do is cut off electric power to the engine module and it will forget its codes. The easiest way to do this is to remove the correct fuse in the fuse block, but if you don't want to figure that out, you can also do it by removing the battery ground connector for 30 seconds.

Typically it will take a certain amount of time to register a code -- maybe 20 minutes of driving or maybe several start, stop cycles. So just stop a few blocks away from the test station, disconnect the battery ground for 30 seconds, reconnect and go for your inspection. You should be clear of codes long enough to pass. You can practice this in advance to make sure it works for you.
posted by JackFlash at 6:07 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much. I will try this tonight.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 6:09 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

When you say tampering, does that include clearing the codes with a reader after a repair?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:10 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Typically it will take a certain amount of time to register a code -- maybe 20 minutes of driving or maybe several start, stop cycles. So just stop a few blocks away from the test station, disconnect the battery ground for 30 seconds, reconnect and go for your inspection.

It's very likely that this method may not work. OBDII has a "Readiness" feature. Basically, the ECM has a "drive cycle" built into its programming wherein the criteria for performing and evaluating its self-checks are met. Some emissions and engine performance self-tests (called Monitors) can only be carried out by the ECM during specific driving conditions and it can take a pretty decent amount of time before all of those conditions are met and the components and systems are tested.
The same way that the ECM will store fault codes, it also stores what's called a Readiness Code. The Readiness Code is an 8 bit string of digits that indicates which Monitors have been completed ("0" being incomplete and "1" being complete). An OBDII Emissions Test will check to for a complete ("11111111") Readiness Code. I know that in PA, an incomplete Readiness Code qualifies as a test failure. This effectively prevents people from clearing their fault memory minutes before emissions testing in order to fake their way through testing, in addition to allowing repair technicians to determine if their repair has been effective.
Most serious and persistent emissions or engine performance malfunctions will set a fault code during their first drive cycle. Some electrical faults will trigger the check engine light within seconds of starting up the car.
posted by Jon-o at 6:24 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

In California, there is a limit to how much money you have to spend attempting to fix a smog-related problem before you don't have to spend any more money; I want to say it's $1500, but I can't back that up with a cite.

You seem like a detail-oriented person who knows how to do research, so I have no doubt you have those $900 of receipts to fix your smog-oriented problem. So, the worst-case scenario should be that you have to attempt to fix the problem some more, up to the limit, after which you can motor on.

However, do some diligence first, before you spend any more money:

1. Make sure your $900 of receipts does in fact apply against the limit -- the safest way is to contact the authorities directly;
2. Make sure any future repairs will apply against the limit -- this will be a matter of timing, as well as what specific repairs you make;
3. Make sure the amount you'll have to pay to hit the limit is worthwhile given the age of the car, and if possible, apply those dollars to wear items that are likely to prevent you passing smog in the future (like O2 sensor and catalytic convertor.)

Finally, two days before your test, put in a new air filter and fill up your tank with premium gas. Reset the check engine light (IANAL, but resetting the light is not tampering; intentionally disabling it is.) Make sure you drive long enough to fulfill a full drive cycle, then go get that test. There is a chance it won't go off this time before the test is complete, in which case you bought yourself a few more years. If it does go off, the testing guy sees it all the time; just go "oh, it does that sometimes, is that a problem?" and let him tell you that yes, yes it is, before you drive off on your merry way with a notice that you have x amount of time to fix and retest.
posted by davejay at 7:31 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

jon-o: It's very likely that this method may not work. OBDII has a "Readiness" feature.

jon-o is absolutely right (as usual). My apologies for giving you some bad information. I did not know that California requires plugging into the OBD-II, not just looking for a check engine light. Some other states do not require this.

From the California Air Resources Board:

Additionally, if too many readiness flags are "incomplete," the vehicle will fail the inspection because it has not been operated enough to allow all of the self-diagnostics to run. This can occur if a fault has recently been repaired, if you have recently had a dead or disconnected battery, or if your vehicle battery has recently been replaced. It does not necessarily mean that anything is wrong with your car - it simply means that the vehicle hasn't had a chance to run all of its self-diagnostics to confirm that everything is okay. The vehicle will need to be driven more before the vehicle can be tested to pass. Vehicle owners who fail Smog Check due to incomplete readiness flags should drive their vehicle as they normally do for about a week or so to set these readiness flags to "complete."
posted by JackFlash at 9:15 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

My car used to give me EGR check-engines. Bad oxygen sensor. Don't know if that's your problem or not, but it doesn't matter because you can reset codes on your car very easily and very cheaply.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:32 AM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Tampering with a check engine light can get you jail time in California.

Resetting an error code is not tampering. It is your car. You are allowed to read & clear error codes from your car. I find it hard to believe that the Great State of California actually requires you spend hundreds of dollars so some grease monkey can connect a $35 OBD2 code reader, read the code, and then erase it (e.g., precisely the same thing you could do yourself).

Tampering with a CE light would be more akin to disabling it before selling it so the prospective buyer doesn't know there's something wrong. But that's not the case here. This is your car.

Here's another OBD2 reader/eraser. It's $19.99. I own it. It works.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:38 AM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

At any rate, the repairs you describe shouldn't cost you a prohibitive amount of money. Like JackFlash says, your EGR ports probably have some carbon in them. If you're mechanically inclined you could remove your EGR valve and spend some time removing that carbon with various picks and solvents.
Your EVAP problem (vent malfunction and incorrect purge flow) is indicative of either a defective purge control solenoid or one of the vacuum lines to and from that solenoid being broken. That should also be cheap easy fix that you could potentially do yourself.
Additionally, both the EVAP and the EGR system use the Mass Airflow sensor data as part of their self-check evaluations. The EVAP system needs to know how much air is entering the engine in order to purge the correct amount of fuel vapor. The EGR system doesn't have a separate sensor for detecting EGR flow, typically. Since it's allowing gasses into the engine via a non-throttle source, the ECM checks for the MAF value to drop when EGR as activated.
You could try buying a can of CRC Mass Airflow Sensor cleaner, removing the air cleaner housing, and hosing down the MAF sensor. It's not uncommon for those sensors to develop some crud build up or dust bunnies that cause it to inaccurately detect the air entering the engine.
You might not have to spend hundreds of dollars fixing this, but you might be able to get it all to work well enough for long enough to pass your test.
Both systems also rely on oxygen sensor data for their evaluation as well, but I wouldn't just throw an O2 sensor at it without trying other routes first.

Yeah, "tampering" would include things like removing the bulb from the instrument cluster or otherwise causing it to not illuminate when there's a fault. Turning it off does not qualify as tampering. But, again, they'll be able to instantly determine that you've just reset the check engine light. They'll be unable to test your car due to the readiness monitors not being complete.
posted by Jon-o at 4:23 AM on November 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have the exact same problem with my 2000 Toyota Corolla. (I'm in North Carolina) I even paid to get the catytlitc converter changed, and the check engine light still comes on and will not pass inspection. It's got to be some kind of toyota thing from that era. Anyway, in NC at least, there are mechanics who are willing to work with you around this check engine thing so you can pass emissions, because there are so many cars out there like this. But its really frustrating every years and I wish something could be done to correct this problem!
posted by Rocket26 at 5:53 AM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Cars get recalled all the time due to emissions non-compliance - Fight Club was pretty much BS on this point (I'm in the auto industry, too). In fact if the field failures for a part reach a specific percentage (I'm not on the diagnostics side so I don't know all of the details), it's an automatic recall.

I would suspect an intermittent electrical problem in the ECM wiring harness somewhere. These can be very hard to find.

Jon-o's correct about the IM ready flags, too.
posted by rfs at 12:51 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Help me find a winter coat in Tokyo!   |   Mental Health filter: How do I get over feeling... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.